It Can Happen Here! The World of Bob Clampett
An unparalleled wackiness swept through the cartoons. Main characters became aggressively screwy and manic. Imaginations were let loose, gravity was ignored (1).
Clampett was the studio’s foremost devotee of post-Averyan all-out zaniness, but his touch was lighter than his mentor’s, his sense of the absurd freer, his humor more highly spirited and unrestrained (2).
Robert (Bob) Clampett is one of the key figures in the history of American animation. After short stints working as a newspaper cartoonist and, as he claims, in merchandising for Disney, he joined the fledgling Harman-Ising (whose cartoons were distributed by Warner Bros.) animation unit in 1931, contributing to the first Merrie Melodie cartoon, Lady Play Your Mandolin (Frank Marsales). Over the next five years, Clampett worked on a range of cartoons and characters, gradually building his reputation as one of the youngest and brashest animators at the studio. After serving as a key animator (along with Chuck Jones and several others who would later work with Clampett) in Tex Avery’s seminal unit, Clampett started supervising his own cartoons in July 1937. His early black and white cartoons were uneven in their conception and execution, highlighting his limitations as a fluid animator. During the next five years, Clampett did direct several important Warners cartoons, and he was integral to the development (if not the invention, as he often claimed) of such characters as Porky Pig, Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny. Nevertheless, with the exception of such cartoons as Porky in Wackyland (1938), Polar Pals (1939) and The Film Fan (1939), Clampett’s often rudimentary early work is eclipsed by that of Avery and Frank Tashlin. It is not until 1941–42 that Clampett’s cartoons truly cohere into a dynamic and expressive “whole”. From 1942 until 1946 many of the greatest cartoons produced at Warner Bros. were directed by Clampett. After Warners, Clampett journeyed briefly to Screen Gems and subsequently moved into various forms of television-based animation. Two of the programs he made for television, Time for Beany and Beany and Cecil, largely account for his popular reputation. This essay focuses attention on the work Clampett produced during his greatest period of creativity, arguing that his critical reputation is now mostly based on a scattering of cartoons made in the four-year period between 1942 and 1946. His greatest cartoons of this era – such as Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (1943), Tortoise wins by a Hare (1943), A Corny Concerto (1943), Russian Rhapsody (1944), Book Revue (1946), Kitty Kornered (1946), and The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946) – are ultimately his chief legacy to the art of Hollywood animation. It is also the cartoons he made in this period that furthest stretch the boundaries of the form (3).
In September 1938, Clampett released his eleventh cartoon for Warner Bros. This seven-minute film, Porky in Wackyland, is in many ways both an exemplary and typical early Clampett cartoon. The initial establishment of the story’s world is both economical and rudimentary, the real “fun” occurring once Porky traverses the boundary line that announces, “Welcome to Wackyland: It Can Happen Here!” Such a flimsy barrier between worlds is typical of Clampett’s work at Warners, though such a clear demarcation becomes less common in the more freewheeling and extreme work that dots his last four years at the studio. Inspired by Lewis Carroll’s adventures of Alice in Wonderland, as well as the canvases of Picasso and Dali, Clampett takes Porky on a journey into a surreal, abstracted landscape in which the logic of our – and commonly Porky’s – world is reversed and transcended: a rabbit swings on his own ears; a rubber band marches by; a dog and cat are physically conjoined; a criminal holds bars in front of his face to prove his incarceration; and the Do-Do Porky is hunting lifts up the backdrop of the scenery to escape, zooms into the foreground on the Warners shield, and intermittently appears to attenuate the animation with his own pencil. He becomes one of numerous characters in Clampett’s cartoons whose “inner” psychology or nature is reflected and refracted onto his body and surroundings.
Leonard Maltin has argued that “Porky in Wackyland is an eye-popping tribute to the unlimited horizons of the animated cartoon, a perfect example of what the medium could do with just some imagination and a lot of talent” (4), further claiming that when Clampett “was handed the director’s reins he burst forth with new and imaginative ideas” (5). Maltin’s account promotes the unfettered qualities of Clampett’s work, while also alluding to the undisciplined and manic form of his individual cartoons. Nevertheless, Maltin’s version de-emphasises the sense of development that can also be traced across Clampett’s career, as well as the short period of intense creativity that defines his best work.
It is in the first half of the 1940s that the conditions arose that best suited Clampett’s sensibility; he found himself at a studio that was overtaken by the energy and relative freedom of war-time production, where personnel changed frequently, where specific moral and even visual/narrative frameworks were loosened, where characters (such as Bugs and Daffy) were bending and taking on new forms and shapes, and where the vaunted extremes of style that define his best work were deemed acceptable and perhaps even necessary. By 1943, as Barry Putterman suggests:
Now working in color and having inherited key Avery animators Robert McKimson and Rob Scribner, Clampett was free to explore his major preoccupation, an almost transcendentally romantic yearning to escape human limitations through animated physical transformation (6).
It is the cartoons made in this period, and up to 1945 when he left the Warners lot, that now define Clampett’s reputation (7). Other writers, such as Michael Barrier, have argued for a much briefer flowering of the director’s genius; “If he had left the studio in 1944 instead of 1945, it would be much more difficult to make the case for him as a major director” (8). Of all accounts of Clampett’s work at Warners, Barrier’s is the most detailed and sensitive to the actual conditions of production that he encountered there. Although he singles Clampett out in terms of his vision and ability to energise the cartoons he helmed, he also regards the final product (and often its limitations) as collaborative in nature; partly blaming the variability of the director’s work on the various animators he worked with. For example, and unlike Putterman, he regards the fluid realism of Robert McKimson’s animation as antithetical to Clampett’s transformative, almost psychological rendering of character, line and space; “With McKimson’s influence receding, Clampett’s cartoons were once again satisfying as wholes” (9). Thus, Barrier charts the waxing and waning of Clampett’s career through the visual evidence he sees imprinted into the varied styles of the cartoons, and the animators who worked on them. Clampett himself is often regarded as a relatively rudimentary draftsman, and the success of his cartoons dependent upon the ways in which his animators, background and layout artists were able to interpret the extremes of his guiding illustrations and gag ideas. Phil Monroe, an animator who worked with Clampett during World War II, but is more well known for his work with Chuck Jones, claimed that Clampett’s “strongest point would be that when you talked to him about the story, he’d get you enthused with his story points… He was always talking to you. He would get up and act out something; he was very descriptive.” (10) Thus, Clampett’s greatest cartoons are defined by a freewheeling visual style, an attention to descriptive detail, and the sense of energy and enthusiasm that Monroe describes above. This enthusiasm extends over into his representation of specific characters, Daffy Duck in particular. Although Daffy has a greater density of character in the work of Chuck Jones, he is never more sympathetic or energetic than in the cartoons of Clampett. An exuberance of character and cartoon meld into the shifting angular contortions that guide Daffy through such classics as Draftee Daffy (1945) and Baby Bottleneck (1946).
Clampett’s work at Warners is defined by his animation of speed and extremes. His cartoons often mix together various genres, references to other cartoons and popular culture, diverse styles of animation, and a varied degree of allegiance to the chase formula that defines many Classical Hollywood cartoons. In contrast to the work of his contemporary, colleague, and sometimes “adversary”, Chuck Jones, Clampett was often less successful in integrating the “classical” requirements of narrative and style into his work. As Barrier states, “He [Clampett] exercised a director’s control not as Jones did, by giving his cartoons smooth surfaces and logical structures, but by trying to make them as outrageous as possible” (11). Classical norms of story and style may seem unnecessary requirements for animation, and yet the Hollywood cartoon was generally circumscribed by a set of limits – even of gravity and perspective – akin to its live-action counterpart. As in some live-action comedy, this form stretched to incorporate direct address to the camera, blackout gags, and hyper-expressive performances, but was commonly contained within the causal, linear frameworks of classical narration, a rather regimented star system, and a series of genres often borrowed (and parodied) from live-action cinema. This hyper-allegiance to live-action forms became the central dynamic of Frank Tashlin’s Warners cartoons in the early to mid-1940s, while Jones and even Friz Freleng’s work commonly operates in a register, tone and even style seemingly borrowed from live-action comedy and drama (with expressions and emotions scored to music in a fashion akin to broader forms of melodrama).
It is only in the cartoons of Clampett and his great mentor Tex Avery that the promise and potential of animation is fully explored (although after an initial series of deathly slow cartoons Jones did experiment with colour, forms of limited animation and speed in the early 1940s). Avery’s work at Warners (from 1936 to ’42) is both modern and old-fashioned or vaudevillian in nature. The endless gags involving characters directly addressing the “camera”, puns on names and common expressions, parodies of various genres (particularly travelogues), and even the nature and form of the characters he helped create and mould (such as Bugs and Daffy), are combinations of these two tendencies. It wasn’t until Avery moved to MGM in 1941 (his Warners’ cartoons were released into 1942) that these “gags” took on a more explicitly cinematic and philosophical tone in his work. Clampett’s early cartoons are often indebted to the innovation and form of Avery’s work, but he ultimately proved far more adept in pushing the physical boundaries and extremes of the animated worlds he created. Nevertheless, as Greg Ford has argued, “[Clampett] is very similar to Avery and obviously influenced by him in terms of individual gags. But he is just not the conceptual artist that Avery is, he doesn’t deal in disciplined areas of abstraction” (12). While many writers see this as a deficiency, this inability to conceptualise and justify abstraction, as well as self-consciousness, is partly what gives Clampett’s cartoons their enormous energy and distinctive style.
The extremity and undisciplined quality of Clampett’s later Warners’ cartoons can be partly elucidated by his working method; he commonly only illustrated the extremes of a character’s expression, increasingly using this role as a means to stretch the corporeal and gravitational boundaries of his films’ worlds and his characters’ bodies. This is illustrated in such freewheeling cartoons as Baby Bottleneck, where the bodies of Porky and Daffy are almost liquid in nature, constantly reformulating, sharpening and flattening to demonstrate the emotional and physical extremes the characters are going through. As a result, they are often pure, unfettered embodiments of these states.
The increasingly hyper-expressive nature of Clampett’s cartoons is also illustrated by both his use of dynamic and unrealistic (often “spot”) colour schemes and his choice of characters. Many of Clampett’s best cartoons star Daffy, pushing this often-venal character into regions that few other directors had taken him. Clampett’s early cartoons with Daffy such as The Daffy Doc (1938) commonly follow the model set up by Avery in which the character mainly just lives up to his name (he simply acts daffy). Thus, this character often brings a dynamic force to cartoons which unfortunately then just regress into manic chases. By the end of Clampett’s tenure at the studio things had changed. As Barrier notes, “The Daffy in Clampett’s last few cartoons was unmistakably sane…but he lived at the same high emotional temperature as Avery’s Daffy. He was not aggressive [unlike Clampett's Bugs], he was passionate – and his passion was his undoing” (13). The composite or combinatory tendencies Barrier describes are typical of the innovations of Clampett’s work; he draws inspiration from varied sources and traditions while combining them in a fashion that emphasises the clash of tones and sensibilities.
Of all the directors who worked for the Warners cartoon outfit Clampett was perhaps the key figure in shifting the studio toward a more frenetic, energetic and exaggerated style in the late 1930s. Along with Tashlin’s brief run of films between 1943 and 1945, Clampett’s work in the 1940s is perhaps the pinnacle of Warners’ first “golden age” of animation, marking the move out from behind the shadow of Disney and toward the occupation of the space left by Disney’s increased interest in feature film production (and due also to shifting audience tastes, perhaps). Clampett’s films of this period (particularly from 1942 when his budgets increased and he took over Avery’s production unit) illustrate the studio’s shift away from semi-“realistic” character animation and toward a more freewheeling, satiric, explicitly topical, exaggerated but also refined style. This earlier “golden” period benefited from the presence at the Warners’ studio of four major directors (Jones, Clampett, Tashlin and, for a time, Avery), each with identifiable styles partly forged by the teams each worked with. It also saw the emergence and consolidation of the team of animators, musicians (particularly Carl Stalling who arrived from Disney in 1936), voice artists (Mel Blanc arrived in 1937), background artists, and writers who were to make Warners the pre-eminent short animation studio in the 1940s and 1950s (commercially and in terms of critical re-evaluation) (14).
Many of Clampett’s cartoons of this period are deeply parodic and self-aware of their status as American, Hollywood-produced and animated cartoons. Thus, for example, A Tale of Two Kitties (1942, the first Tweety cartoon in which he was unofficially called Orson) involves a cat duo based on Abbott and Costello, Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs includes sly and not so esoteric references to Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (David Hand, 1937), What’s Cookin’ Doc (1944) involves Bugs in his own Academy Awards ceremony incorporating large chunks of Freleng’s Oscar-nominated Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt (1941), The Great Piggy Bank Robbery surreally takes-off “from” Dick Tracy, and Kitty Kornered includes extended reference to Welles’ The War of the Worlds broadcast.
Coal Black is one of the clearest explorations and illustrations of this break with the Disney tradition. Rather than ignore the dominance of Disney’s feature production it is a very deft, energetic and controversial parody of Snow White that illustrates the brevity, visual rhythm and rapid-fire pacing of the studio’s best work (15). Nevertheless, it is probably more accurately viewed as a riff on rather than a parody of Disney’s film. Unlike much of the Disney studio’s work, Coal Black is a raunchy, contemporary, extreme and shockingly racist film (the racism of many Disney films is often less up-front and more cloying). It updates the Disney story to a contemporary war-time setting in which Queenie calls in Murder Inc. “to black out So White”, and to stop her from stealing the zoot-suited Prince Chawmin’. This is a cartoon widely regarded as a masterpiece in absentia, a seldom seen product of the sexual mores and ethnic stereotyping of its time. Nevertheless, many writers understandably go out of their way to both underline the ideological problems of the film – especially for contemporary audiences – and its extraordinary energy and vibrant style as a truly animated cartoon. As Terry Lindvall and Ben Fraser suggest:
Coal Black‘s brazenness earned the film much of its notoriety, but even as shocking as it is for its racial content, the aesthetic and musical brilliance, the unabashed raunchiness, and the pure cartooniness salvage it as a masterpiece for most audiences, even some black audiences (16).
Much is often also made of the “exceptional” research that Clampett and his animators undertook (they visited night-clubs and “drafted” African-African musicians and actors) to provide an accurate, celebratory, authentic and incorporative vision of urban African-American culture of the time. Along with Tin Pan Alley Cats (1943) it highlights Clampett’s fascination with African-American street culture, its syncopation and language, pushing its potent stereotypes to the extremes of comic absurdity.
Also, as with many of Clampett’s cartoons, one can sense the direct influence of comic books, popular music, street culture, live-action cinema and contemporary art (especially surrealism) upon these two films. Like much of Clampett’s best work, these films are syncopated snapshots of a particular time, place and set of social mores. So it is hardly surprising to discover that the greatest period of Clampett’s tenure at Warners coincides with the ramped-up stereotypes encouraged by the World War II era. As Tim Onosko argues, “Clampett created an entirely new and irreverent style of animated filmmaking more suited to the era than either Disney or Fleischer” (17). Although Onosko’s parochial account unnecessarily favours Clampett at the expense of his Warners’ colleagues, as well as Avery at MGM, it does pinpoint the ascension of the studio to the pinnacle of Hollywood short animation during this period and accurately regards Clampett’s work as a cornerstone of this process.
Norman F. Klein sees the emergence of the chase cartoon, and its pre-eminence at Warners by the late 1930s, as essential to the development of the dynamism of the short Hollywood cartoon, and its transformation in the 1940s. He places significant emphasis on the increasing velocity of the best cartoons, regarding speed, rhythm and an increasing visual anarchy as the key contributions of Hollywood animation to the spirit of the times. He sees this as nothing less than a “transformation” during which “the two cartoon masters of speed were Avery and Clampett” (18). Other writers such as Steve Schneider argue that this transformation “instigated” by the studio was more widespread, “by 1940, the Warner cartoons had transformed the tone and temperament of all American short-subject animation” (19).
As Klein suggests, Clampett is one of the instigators of this transformation and a key figure in accelerating the velocity of Hollywood animation. Such a late Clampett cartoon as The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (his third last at Warners) revels in this juxtaposition and juggling of forms and tones: bizarre expressive camera angles and “lighting”, intermittent shape-bending chases, integrated and scatological dialogue, a percussive and acoustically dynamic soundtrack, slapstick and expressionist imagery, outlandish characters (watch out for Neon Noodle, Jukebox Jaw, Pickle Puss and 88 Teeth) and nightmarish dream imagery. For example, the taking-off of planes from Flat-Top’s suitably endowed head has to be one of the weirdest and most hallucinatory visuals in all animation. The film’s world is all dark shadows, neon signs and shifts of size and perspective (a key characteristic of Clampett’s work). The Great Piggy Bank Robbery is possibly Clampett’s most successful incorporation and transformation of the visual style of another source; in contrast to his often charming but stultifying rendition of Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hatches the Egg (1942), this cartoon manages to animate and energise the frames of Gould’s comic-strip, incorporating Clampett’s (and Daffy’s) own sensibility into its grotesque but matter-of-fact proceduralism. In some respects it also illustrates the implied but sadistic violence of its source. The whimsical, singsong, somewhat cerebral source material offered by Dr. Seuss – complete with curly looking figures and objects – is much closer to the sensibility of Chuck Jones, the pulp, staccato, visually and physically violent popular street culture of Dick Tracy much closer to Clampett’s world (20). In keeping with this, Clampett’s cartoons of this period have a macabre, dark and malevolently violent streak, best illustrated by The Great Piggy Bank Robbery‘s brilliantly animated scene of tumbling corpses falling endlessly through a bullet-ridden door.
The perfunctory, self-consciously “artificial” and over-played (in great pontificating Daffy style) narrative frame of The Great Piggy Bank Robbery highlights another dominant aspect of the Clampett cartoon. Clampett’s films invariably burst out from their rather flimsy framing stories and into a heightened dream or nightmare state that collapses the established cartoony logic of time and space. All it takes is for Elmer to fall asleep (The Big Snooze, 1946) or Daffy to accidentally punch himself in the head (The Great Piggy Bank Robbery), to unleash the wild splash of vibrant, often primary colours, abstracted backgrounds and multiplying figures or golems that energise Clampett’s best work. Also, Clampett’s greatest films create plastic universes that bend, extend and literally explode to accommodate the deranged fantasies of their protagonists. Thus, in Tin Pan Alley Cats the wild swinging jive of the Kit Kat Club elevates (“send me outta dis world”) the Fats Waller-like feline protagonist into a surreal landscape straight out of Porky in Wackyland. In Bacall to Arms (1946), the over-ripe sexual fantasies of the film’s wolf protagonist, as he sits watching a monochrome parody of “Bogey Gocart” and “Laurie Becool” in Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not (1944, called To Have To Have To Have… here), ignite and relax the space between the audience and the cinema screen. It becomes difficult to demarcate the boundaries between spectator and spectacle, film and film world, as the characters become caught up in the fantasies that unfold within and in front of them – and Bogey tries to light Becool’s cigarette with a oxyacetylene torch. In a manner more common to the work of Avery, characters on screen directly address the audience, the wolf erotically “Bogarts” Becool’s discarded “cinematic” cigarette, and, in its final moments, Gocart shoots the wolf. This odd, rubbery play of textuality, back and forth between the diegetic and the non-diegetic, is a key to Clampett’s curiously ill-defined universe. His films often present a conventional and “believable” cartoon world, if a little “elastic”, that is subsequently bypassed by psychosis, the subconscious, a dream, excessive revelry or just a plain bonk on the head to reveal the extraordinary Clampett universe beyond.
Nevertheless, this penchant for parody, pastiche, hyperbolic quotation and hyped-up energy is characteristic of much Warners animation during this period and earlier. For example, Frank Tashlin’s The Case of the Stuttering Pig (made in 1937 and his ninth cartoon for the studio) is a remarkable take-off of the Universal horror films of James Whale and creates a genuinely spooky cartoonisation of Hollywood gothic. Like another Tashlin film, Porky Pig’s Feat (1943), it relies upon an imaginative and well-articulated appropriation of live-action technique (dissolves, expressive camera angles, point-of-view shots, etc). The visual fields of Tashlin’s cartoons are often extraordinarily imaginative and flamboyant; for example, the in-flight passage of the hapless hotel manager through off-screen space is reflected, in turn, within the eyes of both Porky and Daffy. Much has been written about the cartoon nature of Tashlin’s feature film work (particularly with Jerry Lewis) but little about his attempts to bring the toolbox, grammar and “logic” of live-action cinema to animation (to think of the cartoon as film and then film as cartoon). Thus, Tashlin’s cartoons are alive with a self-awareness of the form, its possibilities and materiality, and its explicit relation to live-action cinema. In the process a symbiotic relationship, which is now often difficult to keep in mind when watching the animated short subject, is forged and insisted on between many of his cartoons and the live-action feature. Not surprisingly, it is often in Tashlin cartoons that one most recognises the “genuine” star power of these animated characters. With its Bugs Bunny cameo, Porky Pig’s Feat anticipates Jones’ self-consciously genre-bending star extravaganzas of the 1950s (The Scarlet Pumpernickel , Rabbit Fire , Beanstalk Bunny  etc.).
On the whole, Clampett’s style of animation is commonly more extreme and less restricted than Tashlin’s. Such comparisons to the style of other Warners directors helps pinpoint what is both distinctive and generic about Clampett’s work. In many ways, Clampett was often the least successful storyteller at Warners, creating manic and uneven worlds that might only be intermittently entertaining or where “gags are so close to being irrelevant” (21). As Klein suggests, this has much to do with the kind of unworldly space that Clampett creates:
The space in Clampett-land is very identifiable, different than Tashlin – the long crane shots and cinematic cuts; different than Avery, who emphasized the edges of the frame (flat versus deep). Clampett’s “eye-view” is more like a staged set, perhaps even shallower, and hovers very much at the ground level, like a wacky set of roads made for stretching around corners. Clampett characters and objects have a peculiar elasticity: they stretch and snap quickly into position; like spring-loaded caterpillars (22).
Thus, Clampett’s space is purpose-built to express and contain the characters; its backgrounds are less cluttered and more abstracted than is common in Warners’ cartoons of this period.
After his departure from Warners in 1945, Clampett initially took over as creative head of production at the newly formed Columbia Cartoons. Warners itself moved onto its next era, consolidating its emphasis on character animation, narrative form and a trusty star system. Whereas the period of Clampett’s best work is partly defined by experimentation, constant shifts in personnel, and the relative “moral” and “sexual” freedom of the war years, the ten years following his departure from Warners witnesses the consolidation of animation units (clustered around only three directors – Jones, Freleng and McKimson – after Arthur Davis’ brief tenure in charge of Clampett’s unit), formats and characters. In the first half of the 1940s, Bugs Bunny’s character, and even animation, varied quite widely between the different directors and animators. Despite his visual consolidation in Clampett’s cartoons (and the importance of Robert McKimson’s model sheets of 1940 and 1943), Bugs’ broader character takes his “proper” shape and sensibility from the work of Jones, Freleng and Tashlin during this period. The laconic bunny was widely experimented on in the early 1940s, and took on a decidedly misanthropic edge in such Clampett cartoons as Tortoise wins by a Hare and The Old Grey Hare (1944).
By the late 1940s, Warners’ cartoons confirmed a more consistent and rational world, moving some distance from the uneasy and unkempt style and energy of Clampett’s late cartoons. It is not surprising that Jones became increasingly – and in some cases understandably – antagonistic towards Clampett and the many claims he made for his own pre-eminence as an instigator and innovator within the studio. Such antagonism has also forced many writers on Classical Hollywood animation to take sides, and provide evidence for the perceived superiority of a particular director’s sensibility and style. For example, in promoting Jones, Patrick McGilligan lambasts his adversary’s crass commercialism:
Clampett is an inveterate self-promoter and has been barnstorming college campuses and television talk-shows for a decade, behaving like a cure-all salesman for himself; to hear him tell it, he was instrumental in nearly everything that happened at the Warner Brothers cartoon factory, short of sharpening the pencils (23).
Such a hostile response is certainly related to, and partly generated by, the many, often surreptitious, claims made by Clampett about his role in inventing characters, creating things like merchandising (he claims to have “manufactured” the first Mickey Mouse doll), and as an ideas man for other directors, but I think it is also consistent with the very different animated worlds the two directors created. Jones’ often wonderful cartoons of the 1950s, are much more concerned with the logic of character and world built over a string of cartoons, of “human” emotions and expressions that draw the audience into the pathos or existential nightmare of a situation. Jones’ characters are of their world, and its clearly defined boundaries (his cartoons are often least successful when Bugs or Daffy step out of character), while the boundary between character and world is often much more flexible in Clampett’s work.
Thus, Jones’ cartoons maintain a much more consistent sense of character. When his characters break from their conventional manners and genres, it is normally within the framework of an explicit performance, an homage or pastiche of a particular form. See, for example, Bugs and Elmer Fudd in the seven-minute condensation of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, What’s Opera, Doc? (1957), or the wonderful string of genre pastiches starring Daffy and Porky in the 1950s, including Dripalong Daffy (1951), Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century (1953) and Rocket Squad (1956). Jones’ cartoons, such as Rabbit Rampage (1955) and Bug’ Bonnets (1956), are much less successful when attempting to alter the “nature” or psychology of his favourite characters, particularly Bugs. Clampett’s best cartoons often dramatise (and animate) this process of alteration.
In fact, Clampett is most successful with characters such as Daffy whose expressive subjectivity seeps over into the world that surrounds them. As Barrier states: “as a dramatist he excelled at showing characters in conflict not with one another, but with their own emotions” (24). This is partly why some of Clampett’s Bugs cartoons (such as Falling Hare, 1943) are so uneven and hard to take; the director turns the most controlled of characters into a shallow pit of neurotic obsessions. McGilligan sees this contrast of directorial styles as underlining the limitations of Clampett’s cinema: “Jones parlayed his gimmicks into a concept; Clampett was satisfied with the clever gimmickry” (25). He takes this further and chastises what he sees as the ultimate conservativeness of Clampett’s supporters: “Like Porky, Clampett is incorrigibly mainstream. When his admirers laud his stark hallucinatory animation, his moral vision, and his vaunted tastelessness, they are really appealing to the fashionably hip culture of Now” (26). McGilligan’s withering analysis of what he sees as the rather “juvenile” terrain of Clampett’s work does hold some weight, but it does not account for the genuinely hallucinatory visuals, surreal juxtapositions and unsettling “humour” that percolate throughout his cartoons. McGilligan’s directorial comparison also relies on a conventional contrast between Jones’ intellectual and philosophical nature and gormless Clampett’s more commercial, promotional and corporeal disposition.
Clampett can be regarded as an inventor of forms. Jones definitely had some of this invention – and a much greater moral humour and complexity – but is at his best as refiner of forms. As stated earlier, Clampett’s departure from Warners after 15 years, allowed for the consolidation of the animation units and their much more regimented styles, but also led him into an exploration of emerging forms. He had long been interested in the combination of different types of animation, puppetry and live-action, and after a brief stint as the creative head of Columbia Cartoons, he moved into television production. Even during his time at Warners, Clampett had experimented with merchandising (for both Warners and Disney), object animation, adventure serial and comic book adaptation. His subsequent work in the newly emergent form of television allowed him to further his interest in garish exaggeration, economical forms of limited animation, and the slightly unsettling combination of painted backdrops, puppetry and masked actors. Clampett’s initial foray into television was the massively successful Time for Beany, a show that promoted his name and “genius” in a much more widespread fashion than the largely anonymous reception of his Warners cartoons at the time (accentuated by the re-release of many of the cartoons of this period without production credits). This promotion of Clampett’s name and authorship was furthered in the cell-animated version of Beany and Cecil produced in the early 1960s; even the theme song contained reference to Clampett’s authorship, and his cartoon-image appeared in the opening credits (also adding fuel to Jones animosity, I’d assume). The success and wide circulation of these two programs tended to obscure Clampett’s work at Warners, but also allowed him the airtime and publicity to promote his own role in the creation of characters like Daffy and Bugs. During this time Clampett also produced other television pilots including: a game-show combining live-action children and puppets; a bizarre juxtaposition of live-action human heads and animated backgrounds and bodies; and animated series featuring new characters or established personalities such as Edgar Bergen and Judy Canova. Each of these prospective programs continued the impure and combinatory qualities of much of Clampett’s work at Warners (27).
Although individual episodes of both Time for Beany and Beany and Cecil do reach close to the manic heights and expressive visual realms of Clampett’s best Warners work, these two programs have, on the whole, dated considerably. Time for Beany is fascinating for its insight into early live television, but its humour is often explicitly juvenile and scatological, and like its later cell-animated counterpart, visually less dynamic than the Warners cartoons (inevitable, considering the budgets and time-frames Clampett was working with).
Clampett was always an energetic and inventive filmmaker, but his promotion to the pantheon of “Great Directors” is actually predicated on a small number of cartoons produced between 1942 and 1946. He is an important and interesting figure at other points, but it is only intermittently during this period that his work takes on a combinatory, expressive and experiential form that exemplifies the peak of Hollywood animation. His status in this regard, runs parallel to that of writer-director Preston Sturges (28). Manny Farber and W. S. Poster, in their exemplary account of Sturges’ career, pinpoint the defining characteristic of the director’s work as “speed”, linking this to the rapid modernisation of the United States, and the changing bodily and mental states required to keep pace with it (29). Like Clampett, Sturges’ career is defined by an endless shifting between genres and tones, as well as a seemingly limitless inventiveness and recombination of forms. Jones largely remained within the realm of cell-animation throughout his career, both Sturges and Clampett moved between mediums and innovations. Jones’ body of work spans almost 50 years; Sturges and Clampett’s wired energy was largely dissipated after an explosion of cinematic creativity in the first half of the 1940s. The increasingly manic speed that Farber and Poster see as the defining innovation of Sturges’ work is also found in Clampett’s cartoons: “he [Sturges] presented a speed-ridden society through a multiple focus rather than the single, stationary lens of the pioneers” (30). Nevertheless, what Farber and Poster saw as a “smoothly travelling vehicle going at high speed going through fields, towns, homes and even other vehicles” (31), careens out of control in Clampett’s work, threatening to transcend the limits of the Hollywood cartoon. This characteristic is described by many writers in terms of a palpably rubbery, elastic or transformative quality found in his work. This velocity is visualised in the way that characters’ movements outstrip their backgrounds, the prominence given to mass-producing machines (“I’m multiplyin’”, Bugs declares in The Big Snooze), and the flexibility and rubberiness of the characters’ bodies and faces. In an early cartoon like The Daffy Doc, an iron lung is required to justify the expanding and contracting body parts of the characters as the end irises in, while such extremes of expression are the defining parameters of all the animation and its often blurred or distorted backgrounds that pulsates throughout late cartoons like Baby Bottleneck and The Great Piggy Bank Robbery.
Ultimately, the great legacy of Clampett’s career lies in the cartoons he made at Warners (particularly from 1942) and the peculiar, unruly energy and “spastic-elastic style” they exude (32). His best cartoons are seldom well structured, leading several critics to claim an overall unsatisfactory quality to what they concede are intermittently extraordinary cartoons. Nevertheless, I would rather follow Barrier’s more helpful lead in suggesting that:
There is something almost threatening about Clampett’s cartoons from this period [1944–46] because the director seems to be letting slip into them so many things – bizarre gags, childish obsessions, sadistic urges – that more methodical directors would have excluded. His cartoons can make audiences uneasy, as few cartoons can (33).
Thus, his work is defined by an openness to situations and ideas, and his cartoons rarely conclude in a dramatically satisfying manner. In many of them the characters are yanked out of their dream-state or reverie, the world knocked out of kilter in the opening moments perfunctorily put back in alignment. For example, The Big Snooze concludes with a rapid return to the status quo (of Bugs tricking Elmer) as both “characters” tumultuously descend from the clouds (another Clampett staple) and enter into their dozing bodies. A surprising number of Clampett’s cartoons also conclude with weak, vaudeville-style gags – see, for example, the black-faced Gocart at the end of Bacall to Arms who recalls the plentiful references to Rochester and Jack Benny in the cartoons of this period – suggesting that the classical requirements of narrative closure are not well-suited to his work.
With the departure of Clampett in 1945–46 the first Golden era of Warners animation ended; the final string of works he directed at the studio stands at the pinnacle of his career. By this time Tashlin had already moved toward live-action cinema as a writer, and Avery was gainfully employed producing his best work at MGM. Many of Clampett’s best cartoons work as topical parodies of and references to contemporary cultural artefacts (so many war references) and as timeless comedies illustrative of the best and most transgressive traditions of the Warners studio. They are also cartoons that have moved past the cute, animistic and “realistic” logic of the Disney cartoon. This brief period of Warners animation (from the late 1930s to 1946) produced some of the most sustained, freewheeling and bizarre examples of anti and post-Disney animation to come out of Hollywood. Welcome to Clampett-land, check your Mickey Mouse ears at the door.
This article was refereed.
As director/animation supervisor at Warner Bros.
Porky’s Badtime Story (24/7/1937)
Get Rich Quick Porky (28/8/1937)
Rover’s Rival (9/10/1937)
Porky’s Hero Agency (4/12/1937)
Porky’s Poppa (15/1/1938)
What Price Porky (26/2/1938)
Porky’s Five and Ten (16/4/1938)
Injun Trouble (21/5/1938)
Porky’s Party (25/6/1938)
Porky and Daffy (6/8/1938)
Porky in Wackyland (24/9/1938)
Porky’s Naughty Nephew (15/10/1938)
Porky in Egypt (5/11/1938)
The Daffy Doc (26/11/1938)
The Lone Stranger and Porky (7/1/1939)
Porky’s Tire Trouble (28/2/1939)
Porky’s Movie Mystery (11/3/1939)
Chicken Jitters (1/4/1939)
Kristopher Kolumbus. Jr. (13/5/1939)
Polar Pals (3/6/1939)
Scalp Trouble (24/6/1939)
Porky’s Picnic (15/7/1939)
Wise Quacks (5/8/1939)
Porky’s Hotel (2/9/1939)
Jeepers Creepers (23/9/1939)
Naughty Neighbors (7/10/1939)
Pied Piper Porky (4/11/1939)
The Film Fan (26/12/1939)
Porky’s Last Stand (6/1/1940)
Africa Squeaks (27/1/1940)
Ali-Baba Bound (10/2/1940)
Pilgrim Porky (16/3/1940)
Slap-Happy Pappy (13/4/1940)
Porky’s Poor Fish (27/4/1940)
The Chewin’ Bruin (8/6/1940)
Patient Porky (24/8/1940)
Prehistoric Porky (12/10/1940)
The Sour Puss (2/11/1940)
The Timid Toreador (21/12/1940) co-dir: Norman McCabe
Porky’s Snooze Reel (11/1/1941) co-dir: Norman McCabe
Goofy Groceries (29/3/1941)
Farm Frolics (10/5/1941)
A Coy Decoy (7/6/1941)
Meet John Doughboy (5/7/1941)
We, the Animals, Squeak (9/8/1941)
The Henpecked Duck (30/8/1941)
Cagey Canary (22/11/1941) co-dir: Tex Avery
Wabbit Twouble (20/12/1941)
Porky’s Pooch (27/12/1941)
Any Bonds Today (1942) trailer for the U.S. War Bonds*
Crazy Cruise (14/3/1942) co-dir: Tex Avery
Horton Hatches the Egg (11/4/1942)
The Wacky Wabbit (2/5/1942)
Bugs Bunny gets the Boid (11/7/1942)
Eatin’ on the Cuff (22/8/1942)
The Hep Cat (3/10/1942)
A Tale of Two Kitties (21/11/1942)
Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (16/1/1943)
Tortoise wins by a Hare (20/2/1943)
The Wise Quacking Duck (1/5/1943)
Tin Pan Alley Cats (26/6/1943)
A Corny Concerto (25/9/1943)
Fighting Tools (October 1943) Private Snafu cartoon made for the U.S. Army Signal Corps*
Falling Hare (30/10/1943)
An Itch in Time (4/12/1943)
Booby Traps (January 1944) Private Snafu cartoon made for the U.S. Army Signal Corps*
What’s Cookin’ Doc? (8/1/1944)
Tick Tock Tuckered (8/4/1944)
Russian Rhapsody (20/5/1944)
Hare Ribbin’ (24/6/1944)
Birdy and the Beast (19/8/1944)
Buckaroo Bugs (26/8/1944)
The Old Grey Hare (28/10/1944)
Draftee Daffy (27/1/1945)
Gruesome Twosome (9/6/1945)
Wagon Wheels (28/7/1945)
The Bashful Buzzard (5/9/1945)
Book Revue (5/1/1946)
Baby Bottleneck (16/3/1946)
Kitty Kornered (8/6/1946)
The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (20/7/1946)
Bacall to Arms (3/8/1946)
The Big Snooze (5/10/1946)
* Although made for US Army departments, all these cartoons were made under the umbrella of Warners.
Michael Barrier, Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in its Golden Age, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999.
Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald, Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: A Complete Illustrated Guide to the Warner Bros. Cartoons, Henry Holt and Co., New York, 1989.
Jeff Lenberg, “Bob Clampett”, The Great Cartoon Directors, McFarland & Co, 1983, pp. 48–64.
Richard Corliss, “Warnervana”, Film Comment, vol. 21, no. 6, November–December 1985, pp. 11–13, 16–19.
John Canemaker, “The Hollywood Cartoon”, Filmmakers Newsletter, vol. 7, no. 6, April 1974, pp. 32–36.
Greg Ford, “Warner Brothers”, Film Comment vol. 11, no. 1, January–February 1975, pp. 10–16, 93.
Image Entertainment, Bob Clampett’s Beany and Cecil: The Special Edition, DVD, 1999.
Norman F. Klein, Seven Minutes: The Life and Death of the American Animated Cartoon, Verso, London and New York, 1993.
Terry Lindvall and Ben Fraser, “Darker Shades of Animation: African-American Images in the Warner Bros. Cartoon” in Kevin S. Sandler (ed.), Reading the Rabbit: Explorations in Warner Bros. Animation, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 1998, pp. 121–36.
Leonard Maltin, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1980.
Patrick McGilligan, “Robert Clampett” in Danny and Gerry Peary (eds, The American Animated Cartoon, E.P. Dutton, New York, 150-57.
Museum of Contemporary Art, Kaboom! Explosive Animation from America and Japan, MCA, Sydney, 1994, pp. 87–88.
Tim Onosko, “Bob Clampett: Cartoonist”, Velvet Light Trap, no. 15, Fall 1975, pp. 38–41.
Barry Putterman, “A Short Critical History of Warner Bros. Cartoons” in Kevin S. Sandler (ed.), Reading the Rabbit: Explorations in Warner Bros. Animation, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 1998, pp. 29–37.
Steve Schneider, That’s all Folks! The Art of Warner Bros. Animation, Henry Holt, New York, 1988.
Kenneth C. Spence, “Bob Clampett”, Film Comment, vol. 20, no. 6, November–December 1984, pp. 74–6.
Funnyworld Revisited: Bob Clampett Interview
Michael Barrier and Milton Gray, “Funnyworld Revisited: An Interview with Bob Clampett”, Michael Barrier.Com 2004.
Bob Clampett’s Beany & Cecil
Mark Evanier, POV Online, 2000.
Animation World Magazine
David Kilmer, “On a Desert Island with… Bob Clampett”, Animation World Magazine vol. 4, no. 8, November 1999.
Animation World Magazine
Robert Storey, “Bob Clampett, Boy Wonder of Stage C”, Animation World Magazine vol. 4, no. 6, September 1999.
Click here to search for Bob Clampett DVDs, videos and books at
- Kenneth C. Spence, “Bob Clampett”, Film Comment, vol. 20, no. 6, November-December 1984, p. 75.
- Steve Schneider, That’s all Folks! The Art of Warner Bros. Animation, Henry Holt, New York, 1988, p. 58.
- For a comprehensive account of Clampett’s career, see Michael Barrier and Milton Gray, “Funnyworld Revisited: An Interview with Bob Clampett”, Michael Barrier.Com 2004.: This extensive interview, originally published in Funnyworld in 1970, presents Clampett’s account of his career and reputation, as well as the more critical editorial commentary of the authors.
- Leonard Maltin, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1980, p. 734.
- Maltin, p. 733.
- Barry Putterman, “A Short Critical History of Warner Bros. Cartoons” in Kevin S. Sandler (ed.), Reading the Rabbit: Explorations in Warner Bros. Animation, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 1998, p. 33.
- Clampett’s final Warners cartoons were released up until October 1946. Nevertheless, Clampett’s work on his last cartoons was completed in 1945 but the common release schedule meant that films were often released into cinemas up to 18 months after their production. This accounts for the varied dates given by various writers for Clampett’s movement between studios and for his work with specific collaborators.
- Michael Barrier, Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in its Golden Age, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999, p. 451.
- Barrier, p. 459.
- Barrier, p. 453.
- Barrier, p. 456.
- Greg Ford interviewed by John Canemaker, “The Hollywood Cartoon”, Filmmakers Newsletter vol. 7, no. 6, April 1974, p. 36.
- Barrier, p. 461.
- Timothy R. White sees this popular and critical shift occurring explicitly from Disney to Warners. Nevertheless, he doesn’t see this “critical” shift appearing until the re-evaluation of the Disney studio and its various ancillaries in the 1960s. The rise of the American strain of auteurism in the same period enables a further re-evaluation, differentiation and categorisation of the cartoons produced in the Classical Hollywood era. See, Timothy R. White, “From Disney to Warner Bros.: The Critical Shift”, Reading the Rabbit: Explorations in Warner Bros. Animation, pp. 38–48.
- For a discussion of representations of race in Coal Black and Hollywood short animation of the period more generally, see Terry Lindvall and Ben Fraser, “Darker Shades of Animation: African–American Images in the Warner Bros. Cartoon”, Reading the Rabbit: Explorations in Warner Bros. Animation, pp. 121–36. While recognising the contemporary difficulties of Coal Black, Lindvall and Fraser provide a fascinating account of what they see as the “positive contribution and legacy” (p. 133) of such Clampett cartoons. They also trace much of the energy of and inspiration for Coal Black to African–American culture of the period, Duke Ellington’s stage production Jump for Joy, in particular.
- Lindvall and Fraser, p. 131.
- Tim Onosko, “Bob Clampett: Cartoonist”, Velvet Light Trap, no. 15, Fall 1975, p. 38.
- Norman F. Klein, Seven Minutes: The Life and Death of the American Animated Cartoon, Verso, London and New York, 1993, p. 199.
- Schneider, p. 21.
- It is hardly surprising that Jones went on to direct several adaptations of Seuss’ stories and characters for television, including Horton Hears a Who (1967).
- Barrier, p. 463.
- Klein, p. 194.
- Patrick McGilligan, “Robert Clampett” in Danny and Gerry Peary (eds), The American Animated Cartoon, E.P. Dutton, New York, p. 151.
- Barrier, p. 470.
- McGilligan, p. 154.
- McGilligan, p. 155.
- The greatest resource on Clampett’s work in the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s is Image Entertainment’s exemplary Bob Clampett’s Beany and Cecil: The Special Edition (1999) DVD. This DVD includes numerous episodes of Beany and Cecil and Time for Beany, as well as juvenile footage shot by Clampett in the mid-1920s, copious examples of pilots and test footage for aborted projects, home movies, audio commentaries, extensive interviews and recordings of actual story sessions. Although undeniably hagiographic in much of its critical content, this DVD provides a fascinating insight into the scope and limitations of Clampett’s work. It also concentrates on the periods and aspects of Clampett’s work scantily covered elsewhere, including in this article.
- Coincidentally, the animation for the opening titles of Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941) was produced by the Warners animation unit.
- Manny Farber and W. S. Poster, “Preston Sturges: Success in the Movies”, Film Culture, no. 26, Winter 1962, pp. 9–16.
- Farber and Poster, p. 11.
- Farber and Poster, p. 11.
- Richard Corliss, “Warnervana”, Film Comment, vol. 21, no. 6, November–December 1985, p. 17
- Barrier, pp. 455.